Written by Kevin O’Neill
CEOs have the loneliest job in the world. Perhaps this sounds familiar: The corner office that you eyed your entire career now feels more like a glassed-in cage at the zoo than a seat of corporate power and prestige.
CEOs are often hired because their predecessors failed. They are expected to fix what’s broken quickly and to have all the answers. With such intense pressure, it’s not surprising that many CEOs doubt their abilities — even when those same abilities got them their jobs in the first place.
This can result in a bad case of imposter syndrome, especially among first-time CEOs. In public, CEOs strive to show competence, confidently striding into meetings and definitively executing orders. Privately? It’s a different story. In fact, their stressors are magnified because they operate in a 24/7 spotlight.
There is a cure, though. To own your role as CEO, actively build a network of advisors who can provide unbiased feedback and counsel you on the challenges you face. Having a personal ‘board of advisors’ will lead to better decision-making, results, and a far better experience. Convinced? Good.
Follow these steps to find the right individuals to lean on:
1. Make time — no matter what
CEOs are busy. A Harvard Business Review study showed that CEOs on average pull 10-hour shifts daily Monday through Friday, work nearly four hours a day on weekends, and log 2.4 hours per day while vacationing. In addition to those eye-popping numbers, we know that CEOs must be “on” 24/7 in this era of connectivity.
These are tough demands, but add one more to your list: Set aside precious time to build connections with people you trust. It’s hard to make time for something that feels like it has an indirect effect on your performance, but it can make all the difference for an overwhelmed CEO. To ensure these connections don’t slip through the cracks, block out “interruption-free” times on your calendar devoted to connecting with people in your network.
In times of chaos, remember to stop, look, and listen. When you find yourself confused or anxious about something, don’t charge ahead — take the time to step back, assess the situation, and seek counsel from your inner circle.
Building a support network requires work, which means it requires commitment. It will help you in the end; time spent discussing key business issues with another CEO can produce direct results down the road by improving your effectiveness.
2. Develop a relevant network
The best network is made up of diverse people — those in and outside of your industry. A separate study from Harvard Business Review found that CEOs who are connected to people of different backgrounds and skillsets create higher firm value.
While you decide who to include in your network, look to your community of peers, mentors, coaches, and friends. Use their varied perspectives to challenge your thinking and improve your decision-making. Drawing on other people’s business knowledge is one of the best ways to grow and thrive as a leader.
As you grow your network, consider whether your company is in a state of restructuring, steady growth, or high growth — and then look for those who have led companies in a similar state. If your company has a global footprint and is navigating the challenges facing organizations with an Asian supply chain, for example, an advisor who has dealt with this situation before is critical. You’ll gain perspective from his or her expertise and be able to make better decisions for your company.
3. Recognize your gaps
Nobody is good at everything. We all have strengths, and we all have opportunities for growth. Recognizing this and asking for help shows incredible courage. Take inventory of your shortcomings and get real about what you bring to the table and what you still need to learn. Once you’ve taken inventory, seek out other leaders who excel in aspects of business where you stumble. Someone who has seen an issue you haven’t can give you the insight to avoid costly missteps while improving your confidence.
One of the leaders I’ve had the privilege of mentoring has a demanding executive role in a private equity firm. He failed to see the need to connect with portfolio leadership and instead drove them to the breaking point. His relationships were in chaos, and the results of the companies he oversaw were poor.
He reached out to me for advice, knowing I had suffered these same shortcomings early in my career. My network helped me when I was in a similar situation, so I decided to pay it forward. By sharing my personal story and showing him what I did to change, I was able to gain instant trust. Through a series of regular check-ins, the executive was able to remake himself and dramatically improve his results.
Nothing has given me more professional satisfaction than sharing my story with others in order to help them be the best leaders they can. As an added bonus, my own knowledge gaps started to fill once I became a resource for my peers.
4. Seek out accountability partners
Beyond leadership and technical competencies, the best CEOs know that success comes when they care for themselves. Carve out opportunities to engage in physical activity, connect to a higher purpose, and — most importantly — increase your knowledge through continuous learning. Some of the most effective CEOs I know focus on developing new skills every day. Enlist the help of your support network to keep you accountable and engaged in these activities. Find people who will help you stay focused on your goals and growth.
These relationships work best if you can find someone who is able to tell you the truth without repercussions. This person shouldn’t have skin in the game — objectivity makes him or her an invaluable resource. Perhaps this person will come in the form of a retired CEO, someone in an unrelated company, or a lifelong friend.
Remember, this is a circular process — find a way to pass your experiences on to others. An effective CEO can be formidable, but an effective CEO surrounded by a great support network can take a company to new heights. By building a support network of trusted advisors, you’ll be in a better position to sustainably lead your company forward.
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